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PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Working with an obvious theme, characters pickled in alcohol, drugs and regrets, a frenetic visual style and a relentlessly pounding hard rock soundtrack, Mark Pellington has nevertheless managed to make a compelling and disturbing drama about some elemental male issues in "I Melt with You." This Magnolia Sundance pickup poses significant marketing challenges, beginning with the odd title and also including the assaultive artistic approach and despairingly negative nature of the drama. But there's no denying that Pellington and his gutsy cast have thrown caution to the wind and gone all the way with bold material, and it's this fierce, edgy attitude that could strike a chord with a segment of the public, including viewers half the age of those onscreen.
Intensely centered on four 44-year-old best buds from college days who get together once a year for a week's worth of extreme male bonding, Glenn Porter's script has the basic contours of countless stage dramas in which several friends or relatives, with the help of endless amounts of booze and/or other injestable incitements, move from preliminary bonhomie and jokiness to vicious truth-telling and soul-baring.
But the ante is upped here, as the quantity of spirits, white powder and multi-colored pills consumed makes the intake in plays like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Boys in the Band" look like that at a school librarians' social by comparison. Backed by hugely amped up tunes by the Sex Pistols, the Clash and innumerable other bands, many of them punk, and deliriously shot and cut so as to produce a virtual contact high, the men's first night bacchanal alone is enough to make one consider a stint in rehab.
The dominant figure by virtue of his rugged physique, ultra-macho posturing and impulsive recklessness is Richard (Thomas Jane), a long-ago promising novelist now unhappily teaching English. For this year's reunion, he's rented a sprawling house with a magnificent view of the California coast along Big Sur and, in short order, the others show up: Ron (Jeremy Piven), a family man and financial whiz suddenly in deep trouble with the SEC; Jonathan (Rob Lowe), a Dr. Feelgood type who sells his affluent patients any drugs they want and is suffering from a divorce, and Tim (Christian McKay), a more sensitive, introspective soul haunted by the deaths of both a wife and boyfriend.
The intensity and waywardness of the carousing recalls the immature man-boy shenanigans in some John Cassavetes films, notably "Husbands," and there are similar uncomfortable moments of personal boundaries being crossed and unspoken thoughts being voiced. It's clear from the start that the subject is middle-aged male disappointment, the failure to live up to the dreams and promise of youth, and that inebriated bonding is a preferred way of dealing with it. "This is the best I've felt all year," says one. "It's because I don't feel anything."
On the third day, the flirtatious Richard invites a hot young bartender to bring some friends up to the house, resulting in the wildest night yet. But it also becomes a tragic one, so that, at the half-way point, the film takes on strange and heavy dramatic baggage so contrived it seems it may finally have gone too far.
But Pellington and Porter have nothing if not the courage of their convictions, boldly rolling over one's dramaturgical reservations on their way to making a genuinely devastating critique of contemporary male inadequacies and inability to deliver the goods. Quite pointedly, the local police chief suspicious of fishy doings at the house is written as a woman (played by Carla Gugino) with no man or kids in her life. The issues being addressed could not be plainer and detractors can convincingly hold up "I Melt with You" as a case of major artistic overkill. But it is equally arguable that the combined power of the virtuoso visuals, pulsating music and muscular acting is what drives the central concerns home to the extent that they register with such force and cannot just be brushed aside.
In the sorts of intense roles many actors love because they inspire and require them to let it all hang out, the central quartet appears entirely in line with their director's go-for-broke posture. The pain of loss and/or underachievement behind each character's bravado is clear, just as the rerouting of emotional trauma into exaggerated acting-out and self-anesthetizing rings true. Jane's wildness becomes downright scary at times, Lowe allows cracks in the pretty-boy facade to reveal potentially permanent emotional disfigurement, Piven illuminates an essentially decent guy too weak to do the right thing where it counts, and McKay, who emerged so magnificently on the scene a couple of seasons back in "Me and Orson Welles," proves emotionally engaging and moving here as the most vulnerable and haunted of the foursome.
The California coastline, easily viewed from the house's panoramic windows, essentially represents a fifth important character and provides the film with resplendent visual values. Despite a tight budget, production values are excellent, capped by a dazzling soundtrack that almost never lets up.
Editing by Zorianna Kit